A panic attack can be a very upsetting thing to experience. If it happens in the workplace, it can be even more traumatic. The person having the attack can become very stressed about the reaction from colleagues and their employer – particularly if it’s a first-time occurrence – and the situation requires careful handling to avoid delicate HR issues.

How to recognise a panic attack

No two people will experience a panic attack in the same way. Symptoms can include:

  • shaking or trembling

  • rapid heartbeat

  • sweating

  • dry mouth

  • hot flushes or chills

  • feeling:

  • faint or dizzy

  • unwell or sick

  • a need to go to the toilet

  • disconnection from the body, mind and/or surroundings

  • similarity to a heart attack

  • a loss of control

This list is not exhaustive and there may be other symptoms.

Panic attacks can be experienced on their own, or as a symptom of another condition, such as anxiety or panic disorder. Some people may have a panic attack as a one-off episode and then never again; for others, the condition will be chronic.

What triggers a panic attack?

It’s hard to predict when a panic attack is going to happen. For some people, they can occur with no warning. This degree of uncertainty can cause anxiety and, in some cases, can be life-limiting.

For other people, attacks can be triggered by situations or locations; having to deliver a presentation at work, attending a performance review or finding themselves in a crowded environment, feeling overwhelmed with no immediate means of escape.


Panic attacks are often short-lived, but the after-effects can last for some time. The employer can help by making it clear that the employee doesn’t have to return to work straightaway; they may not be in a condition to do so anyway, and they should be given as much time as they need to fully recover.

Telling the employer

An employee does not have to inform their employer about their panic attacks. However, if attacks happen at work, or if their working environment has a trigger factor, they should certainly keep their employer informed, particularly if:

  • they happen regularly;

  • they could affect the employee’s ability to do their job;

  • there is an issue with health and safety because of the attacks.

The employee may have been prescribed medication for a condition where panic attacks are a symptom and the medication might affect their job or the health and safety of them or others.

The employer may have a policy on the use and storage of prescribed medication in the workplace and would have to apply this to the affected employee.

Telling colleagues

Although the employer must always respect employee privacy, they may have to reveal critical and necessary information about panic attacks with some of the employee’s colleagues. However, it is crucial to remember that this must only be done with the consent of the employee, or following a legitimate aim consideration under GDPR guidelines, as medical information is special category data.

Creating an open and safe space

The employer should try to create an environment where employees feel able to discuss concerns about any health issues.

If an employee doesn’t tell their employer that they are suffering from panic attacks or a condition where panic attacks are a symptom, this could be for a number of reasons – perhaps a previous employer has been less than sympathetic.

If no disclosure has taken place, the employer may nevertheless notice that something is amiss from behavioural signs, such as:

  • early signs of ill health;

  • more frequent sickness absence;

  • change in an employee’s character;

  • decline in their performance or productivity;

  • comments or signs that suggest they are suffering from an underlying condition;

Any one of these will be concerning on its own, but a combination means that it’s time to schedule a supportive welfare conversation.

When doing so, the employer should not make any assumptions about the employee’s health and not ask direct questions about whether the issues are related to certain conditions.

Instead, the conversation should concentrate on:

  • their overall health and well-being;

  • any noted decline in performance or productivity;

  • any increased absence levels;

  • changes in their character and mood;

  • whether there is anything that can be done to help them in general.

The conversation should show the employee that they’re supported in their choice to disclose any symptoms or health issues they may be experiencing, or not.

Are panic attacks a disability?

A condition is considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if it’s

“a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities…An impairment is considered long-term if it has or is likely to last for at least 12 months.”

An employee will need to be assessed to evaluate whether their attacks cross the threshold of a disability and if so, what needs to be done about it.

Adjustments to support employees

Regardless of whether an employee’s panic attacks affect their work, discussions should take place to determine whether they’ll benefit from adjustments to support them.

Examples of adjustments could include:

  • letting them take the lead on what measures they need

  • referring them for an occupational health assessment or offering the assistance of a mental health first aider, if available

  • giving them time off for medical appointments, rehabilitation, assessments or treatment

  • providing a regular contact or ‘buddy’ for them to talk to about their issues and how their work is affected

  • a flexible approach to start and finish times

  • regular breaks if they begin to feel overwhelmed

  • letting them work from home, where possible and if appropriate

Accessing assistance

An employer is not a mental health expert, and nor should they be, but they should be able to access information and guidance on what to know and how to help their employees. Those sources could be internal services, like an employee assistance programme (EAP), or occupational health – if available – or external services, like their GP.